COP26 Won’t Keep the World to 1.5°C. Have the Talks Failed?
It was not difficult for attendees of COP26 to feel overwhelmed during the week on the ground here in Glasgow. Within an hour, a country would promise to reduce its methane emission. A head of government could promise to speed up its renewable energy production for another hour. So on.
On Tuesday, more than a week after the official launch of the conference, COP26 delegates got a sense of how all those commitments have added up—and it isn’t pretty. Two new reports released on the sidelines of the conference suggest the commitments here at COP aren’t doing much to move the needle. Research from Climate Action Tracker and the United Nations Environment Programme both show the world is on track to warm 2.7°C over preindustrial levels under current policies. This includes new policies that have been announced since the beginning of COP. For example, the U.S. climate spending in the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed Congress on November 5.
That’s an alarming level of warming that would almost certainly trigger irreversible tipping points altering life as we know it—not to mention nearly twice the Paris Agreement target of limiting temperature rise to about 1.5°C. But there’s more nuance to the findings than the topline numbers may suggest. The reports should be a wake up call, but they don’t mean the talks have failed—at least not yet.
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To understand the nuance, let’s look at the analysis from Climate Action Tracker.
The report presents four scenarios: In the most pessimistic, countries basically continue with their current policies, leading to that frightening 2.7°C number. In a middle scenario, where countries implement policies in line with 2030 emissions-reductions commitments, temperatures rise 2.4°C. The most optimistic scenario essentially assumes that countries are either taking emissions-reducing action today that they aren’t reporting (which is highly unlikely), or will suddenly move much faster on emissions reduction than they have been up to now (still pretty unlikely). In that case, temperature rise would be limited to 1.8°C.
However, many analysts and activists see these long-term promises as irrelevant. Commitments to eliminate emissions by 2050—or later in the case of countries like China, India and Saudi Arabia—will only keep temperatures from rising to unsafe levels if they drive real action in the next decade. “There’s a massive credibility, action and commitment gap,” says Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics. That is, there is a significant gap between what is pledged—actions that would limit warming to 1.8°C—and what has actually been implemented—actions that would lead to up to 2.7°C of warming.
Multilateral climate negotiations supporters claim that this is the place where COP meetings are most effective. For example, just before the Paris COP meeting, the world was on track for 3.6°C of warming, according to a Climate Action Tracker report at the time. Commitments—undergirded by policy—have moved the needle. COP26 provides a platform for leaders to put pressure on each other and make sure they keep their commitments.
It would, however, be a difficult climb, as it is with all things in international climate negotiations. There’s no real possibility of driving enough new commitments to get to 1.5°C in the next few days, given that large announcements are almost always made by heads of government—most of whom left Glasgow after the first few days.
Some negotiators believe that accelerating the process by which countries can make new commitments is a better option. According to the Paris Agreement, all countries are required to renew their commitments at least every five years. A growing group of countries led by some of those most vulnerable to climate change say that new commitments should happen more frequently—maybe even every year—creating a venue to assess which countries are following through on their commitments and pressure the ones that are falling behind. An early draft of Wednesday’s agreement included an identical provision. It called on all countries to bring new commitments to the table in the next year.
Indeed, after these two weeks of talks, creating a venue for new and deepened commitments may be the only way the world can credibly say the 1.5°C target remains alive. You can decide if such an outcome is credible. If leaders couldn’t align their policies with 1.5°C in 2021, why will they in 2022?